Ranchers and farmers seeking to rebuild consumer trust in the food system can consider three tactics to build understanding about the work they do across the supply chain, says Townsend Bailey, director of U.S. supply chain sustainability for McDonald’s. It’s critical for the global restaurant company, consumers and other stakeholders to appreciate the value of agriculture.
“Our shared interests have to be beneficial for farmers and ranchers,” says Bailey, who delivered the Trust In Food™ Opening Keynote at this week’s Top Producer Seminar in Chicago. The restaurant company has 37,000 locations in over 100 countries and serves 69 million customers, approximately 1% of the world’s population, every day.
Farm Journal created the keynote to serve as the capstone to the inaugural Trust In Food™ Symposium, a co-located event held Jan. 23 in Chicago for over 150 leaders including executives from farms, food companies, food retailers, restaurants, agribusinesses, NGOs, tech firms, government agencies and investment firms.
The first tactic Bailey shares is to find ways to “signal to the far end of the supply chain all of the good work you’re doing. What are opportunities for that connection?”
McDonald’s will spotlight farmer and rancher contributions to the food system as a sponsor of this year’s Environmental Stewardship Awards Program, presented by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). The national winner will be announced this week during NCBA’s annual convention in Phoenix. A list of regional winners is available at beefusa.org.
Second, Bailey encourages farmers to seek out opportunities for continuous environmental improvement on their operations. Find ways to improve water quality and availability, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, improve biodiversity or add wildlife habitat, he says.
At the same time, he says, it’s important for farmers to realize McDonald’s isn’t trying to force practices onto them that are economically unrealistic or without scientific merit. He acknowledges the company’s decision to move exclusively to cage-free eggs by 2025 probably isn’t popular with many farmers. But Bailey says the company carefully considered its options and made the decision to address customers’ needs while walking alongside egg producers to support them in transitioning to cage-free systems. And he points out that when it comes to antibiotics, McDonald’s has avoided blanket, never-ever approaches and focused its efforts on antibiotics important to human medicine, which it removed from its chicken supply chain.
He shares a quote from Mike Williams, a southern California cow-calf operator and a representative to the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef: “If you want to work with me to develop tools that will help me and other ranchers and farmers improve our land, I’m all in. If you want me to check boxes, you’d better get out your checkbook.” Bailey notes that sentiment is held by many farmers that would prefer a collaborative approach to developing tools and resources to improve land, water and air rather than a dictate from the food system.
Third, Bailey says farmers and ranchers need to help educate the supply chain about the business of agriculture. “As retailers, restaurants and brands engage with ag, what should we know so that our engagement is constructive?” Bailey asks. “Where do you see opportunities for collaboration?”
The restaurant company will continue to engage farmers and ranchers on issues of sustainability for multiple commodities, especially beef, he adds. This year, the company will:
- continue its work with the Roundtable to “accelerate industry progress,” Bailey says
- participate in a pilot project with the Noble Research Institute to support farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing and development of sustainability metrics
- move forward with its $4.5 million matching grant to Arizona State University researchers, who are studying the environmental benefits of certain grazing practices
- honor U.S. farmers for the first time through its Flagship Farmers Program, which is already in place in parts of Europe
Sustainability isn’t a perfect term, Bailey says, and McDonald’s appreciates farmers’ patience in hearing people use it often. In reality, the momentum around sustainability points to the industry’s collective desire to ensure natural resources are properly nurtured to limit climate risks and support future generations.
“We look forward to working with you and demonstrating for our customers the positive ways ag in America is helping address society’s most important issues,” Bailey says.